Are Bits and Hackamores Cruel to Horses?

Western Curb

Q: I’ve read that bits hurt a horse’s mouth, hackamores can injure the delicate nerves and bones in the nose, and a sidepull can be too weak to offer control or severe enough to damage the nose. I know that anything in the wrong hands is bad, but what can a pleasure rider like me feel safe using?

A: It’s true that any piece of equipment used by rough hands can cause a horse discomfort, distress, or injury. Regardless of what type of bit or bridle you are using, you need to know how to effectively signal your horse, and your horse needs to know how to respond correctly. So, take the time to find the bridle or bit that offers the right amount of comfort and control, and teach your horse how to respond. He will need guidance to learn how to yield to the pressure softly, accurately and promptly in a reliable manner regardless of the equipment you decide to use.

That being said, a combination bit might give you the versatile and humane communication option you’re looking for. With both a mouthpiece and a noseband, it offers control by distributing pressure evenly between the horse’s nose and mouth. There are several options on the market. Some come with the bit and noseband working in unison, and some give you the option of using either the noseband or the bit independently—a good choice for customizing your control options.

No matter the style, make sure it has a smooth mouthpiece made of palatable metals (such as sweet iron with copper inlay) shaped to conform to the contours of your horse’s mouth. This will give him more room for his tongue and increase his comfort. If the noseband is narrow or stiff, cushion it with some self-adhesive bandaging material or foam wrapped in electrical tape to soften it up and spread the pressure over a wider area to reduce the chance of abrasion. With a few lessons, your horse should catch on to this new form of communication and be ready to head out for a ride.

Liked this article? Here’s more info on bitting:
HorseChannel’s Online Bit Guide
How to Fit a Hackamore

Dale Rudin is a CHA-certified riding instructor and clinician with a mindful and balanced approach to horsemanship and riding.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


  1. I have had a difficult time finding the right bridle for my horse and have found one made by Karen Rolfe at Dressage Naturally. It is bitless and very padded in the noseband and crown. Not only does this fit my horse very well (he is a quarter horse with a very triangle shaped head, short and jowly but very tapered muzzle) he responds excellently! We used to ride in a french link hollow bit and once I went bitless he was much happier. I ride dressage and have had no issues with communication.

  2. Nooooo. No, no, no. A combo bit is a horrid thing to recommend. They confuse the horse by telling them to raise and lower their head at the same time. Most are gags. And contrary to popular belief, the mouthpiece engages first, with the nosepiece not engaging until the mouth AND curbstrap are fully engaged. Absolutely not a combo bit.


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